Siri, what is ‘Solipsism?’
The other day I learned about the word ‘solipsistic” and its meaning. It is negatively-connoted and describes people who think their mind is the only one that exists. I texted my friend are writers innately solipsistic? alongside the chin-stroking emoji, to which he replied are writers innately the type to ask whether writers are innately solipsistic? Gah. No answer, also.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, is akin to a solipsism manifesto. ‘Autobiography’ is misleading — the novel was written in 1933 by Gertrude Stein, the real-life boss of real-life personal assistant/companion Alice B Toklas. Stein wrote it as a view into her own life and world, via the supposedly-awed eyes of Toklas. Together with Stein, Toklas ran a salon in Paris frequented by peak literati, performers and artists: among them Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Alfred North Whitehead, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Matisse, Georges Braque, and Charlie Chaplin. The novel details the many encounters of people within this community, with plenty of (earned) name-dropping and quirky, paté and absinthe-fueled dinner parties.
Stein and Toklas facilitated this Parisian salon in their house on 27 Rue de Fleurus. They were together for 40 years. They were in love. They knew each other very well. Well enough that they likely had many excavations of very deep emotions and memories that helped them make sense of each other. Minor memories as like this one, written from Alice’s perspective:
When I was about nineteen years of age I was a great admirer of Henry James. I felt that The Awkward Age would make a very remarkable play and I wrote to Henry James suggesting that I dramatise it. I had from him a delightful letter on the subject and then, when I felt my inadequacy, rather blushed for myself and did not keep the letter.
There’s obvious projection at play. Assuming ‘inadequacy’ is a bit of a power move. Did Alice actually feel that inadequacy? If she read that section, would she have felt betrayed and infantilized, finding Stein to be revealing a vulnerability unrequited by Alice herself? Likely not, but that type of divulgence and unfair psycho-analyzing is at stake with any projection.
The downfall of projection posing as the serious consideration of another’s subjectivity is that its finished-ness. A person ‘fully understood’ can no longer surprising or be random.
Stein is cheeky about her assumptions, writing as Alice about their introduction to each other:
There I went to see Mrs. Stein who had in the meantime returned to Paris, and there at her house I met Gertrude Stein. I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice. I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them.
‘Alice’ goes on to say that Stein is up there with Picasso and Alfred Whitehead. If Alice observes it, Stein half-jokes, it must be true. After all, the status of ‘genius’ inherently requires some sort of external reverence.
Her role as mirror reminds the reader that not only is Toklas a companion, she is also a ‘wife’ in the relationship, performing many of the tasks of supportive figure occupied by household chores. Wives — by definition — only exist in relation to another person. As Stein noted the many wives of the many artists, she thought of their marginality. She watched as they prevailed as muses, breadwinners, caretakers, and shadow agents, editors and provocateurs. Stein acknowledges that Alice, in their circles, is understood in relation to Stein.
She wants to give attention to Alice’s world — one that while invariably is defined by Stein, is rich in its own sense.
To consider the perception of someone else is certainly invaluable. The Autobiography is a beautiful book full of the type of lovely insight that would come from an intelligent wallflower-y character such as Alice. Stein seems to know that we often experience ourselves through others, and that we can only experience everyone through our literal selves. In either case, the self and perception are always in play. A character, a voice written down is always conceptualized through the writer. Always. Stein isn’t trying to hide this construction. Rather, she allows her understanding of Alice to highlight and emphasize moments in their shared life that Stein wouldn’t have considered by herself. Those moments have become important to Stein because of real-life Alice’s influence.
Though the Autobiography is nowhere near a verifiable, predictive illustration of Alice, it is a very loving one — A mutually-invested conversation about the moments, actions and memories in their lives together that stood out to both of them in visceral ways, that they could extrapolate together. Alice B. Toklas’ memoir What is Remembered, and the many other books she’s authored since are also testaments to their intimacy, though the act of projection reveals a self in relation.
It’s beautiful that Stein took the time to write her all down.